maggie-hsuFor many, thoughts of Las Vegas conjure the bustling Strip, bright lights and miles of contiguous retail and commercial development.

That is not Maggie Hsu’s Las Vegas.

Hsu is director of the Las Vegas Downtown Project and is chief of staff to Tony Hsieh, CEO of online apparel behemoth Zappos, an Amazon.com company.

For the last two and a half years, Hsu has been focused on developing the iconic city’s downtown, better known to locals as East of Fremont. And while the Strip has little problem courting developers, the area’s downtown, which lies just miles to the north, carries a record of neglect.

Hsu will be one of three speakers to present in Colorado Springs as part of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership’s City Center Series. She kicks off the series Jan. 27, followed by city planner and urban designer Jeff Speck March 2 and Peter Kageyama, a community change agent, April 6.

“Through this new speaker series, Downtown Partnership hopes to build community dialogue about what it means to create a great city center,” said Susan Edmondson, CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership. “We’ve brought together national thought leaders on issues like placemaking, design, innovation, walkability and more. I think folks will find it all quite intriguing.”

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While the Downtown Project and Zappos are separate entities, the project would not exist as it is without Hsieh. CEO of the highly unconventional Zappos, which is headquartered in Las Vegas, Hsieh wanted to create a work/life synergy for his employees and the surrounding community. Hsieh invested $350 million of his own money to revitalize the neighborhood near Zappos’ headquarters, which is housed in Las Vegas’ former city hall. Hsieh’s investment went toward real estate development, as well as technology, arts, education and small business investments. Hsu has been charged with bringing Hsieh’s vision to fruition.

“[The Downtown Project] started a couple years back as a concept to put together a mix of efforts to help revitalize the neighborhood in a scalable, thoughtful way with a focus on people and not just buildings,” Hsu said. “Instead of building a stadium, we focused on the entrepreneur.”

In its third year, Hsieh and his team co-own or have invested in more than 300 businesses and legal entities that collectively employ more than 900 people.

Hsu said the project has looked to organic city development and applied the best practices, including minimal interference, to its business and community development.

“Cities have public government that manages some infrastructure and services, but in many ways cities are self-managed,” she said. “It just works. … Great cities grow quickly and last hundreds of years. Companies, as they grow, often times get less efficient and the time scales of great companies are measured in decades. There are ways, then, to structure companies to make them more organized and more resilient.”

Hsu said the project’s success isn’t defined exclusively by quantitative measures and milestones.

“Cities are never really done. … One metric we talk about a lot is the number of strollers on downtown sidewalks,” she said. “We wouldn’t have seen any years ago.”

Hsu said, however, there have been challenges in allowing downtown Las Vegas to develop with little long-term planning.

“It’s all been very organic and, in retrospect, maybe there should have been a little more structure,” she said. “One example is residential [development.] We didn’t focus on it and no one said they wanted to build an apartment building. We have a great lunchtime crowd, but we need people living downtown.”

Hsu acknowledges East of Fremont had significant assistance, thanks to Hsieh’s investment. But how do other cities jumpstart revitalization?

“I think that’s the first question most people ask. It’s all well and good when someone puts in a huge personal chunk of money,” she said. “But we’ve found, in a number of communities that don’t have [that level of funding], there are creative ways communities can get together and do similar things. … For instance, there’s a business cooperative in Vancouver that is committed to giving small portions of their profits each month to a fund and collectively voting on new businesses to get that funding.”


City Center Series

Maggie Hsu, Chief of Staff to Tony Hsieh at Zappos and Downtown Project, Las Vegas

Topic: City as a Startup

5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 27

Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center

Tickets are $10 at DowntownCS.com/CityCenter